When Diana Soltmann was handling PR for the launch of satellite TV
channel UK Gold there was little to suggest that several years later it
would lead to her involvement in the debate over who is running our
prison system. Yet so it has proved.
Soltmann’s client at UK Gold was one Derek Lewis, the television
executive who subsequently became director general of the Prison
Service. When Lewis was unceremoniously removed from his post by Michael
Howard with the blame for a series of jail-breaks laid implicitly at his
door, it was Soltmann to whom he turned.
Her agency, Millbank, mounted a media blitz that saw Lewis popping up
here, there and everywhere to fight his corner. The skill with which
this campaign was handled has shown Soltmann as a force to be reckoned
The media could easily have portrayed Lewis’ response as a case of sour
grapes. That they did not - and the debate ranged across operational and
policy matters - speaks volumes. ‘Derek wanted to make sure that the
central issues were addressed,’ says Soltmann, ‘if he had gone quietly
none of this would have come to light.’
Quietly is probably the last adverb one would apply to the Lewis
swansong. On programmes as diverse as Newsnight, Channel 4 News, Call
Nick Ross and the Jimmy Young show he argued that the Home Secretary’s
interference had made his job impossible.
But what of the woman who engineered his fight back? In her Great
Portland Street office the Soltmann appears composed and at ease.
Emily Bell, media business editor of the Observer, considers her to be
one of the most straightforward and effective PR people around. ‘She
delivers what she says she is going to deliver,’ says Bell.
Millbank now has 10 staff and an impressive client roster including
AT&T, Disney Channel, LV Group and Novotel. In management terms, the
agency is very much a double act - Soltmann has worked together with her
fellow director Jackie Murphy since they were both at Good Relations in
the early 1980s. From there the two moved to The Communication Group in
its heady start-up days. Four years later they were running Royle
In 1994, with Royle deciding to focus on its core business, Soltmann and
Murphy completed a management buyout of the PR business and renamed it
Millbank. One of the investors in the MBO was Good Relations founder
Tony Good who today is the agency’s non-executive chairman. LV Group,
whose products include Luncheon Vouchers, has been a client of
Soltmann’s since the mid-1980s. In February it briefly moved its
business to Charles Barker but is now back with Millbank.
‘Diana was and remains today the most professional PR person I’ve come
across,’ says LV Group managing director Sue Harvey.
‘Diana’s got a strong intuitive as well as a professional feel for
what’s right,’ adds Eurotunnel communications director Dominic Fry, who
worked closely with Soltmann when he was at AT&T.
Soltmann says she doesn’t want the agency to grow too large - she
envisages an optimum size of 20 or so staff. Is this then a case of
fattening up the company for selling off? The question gets Soltmann on
to a topic that is clearly dear to her heart: short-termism.
‘In this country there are far too many people who when they set up
companies are already thinking of exit strategies,’ she sighs. ‘On the
Continent more businesses get handed down through the generations,’ she
Other pet hates are clients who expect their entire corporate image to
be transformed within a couple of months and incompetent PRs who give
the industry a bad name. Scorn for these bugbears aside, Soltmann
remains remarkably composed, exhibiing the sort of social facility that
would do an employee of the foreign office proud. It comes as scant
surprise to learn that she is a diplomat’s daughter and spent many of
her formative years at far-flung postings, including Brazzaville in the
One suspects Michael Howard wishes he had more communications advisers
with the level-headedness and nous of Soltmann to rely on.
1976-1978 Management trainee, Gallaher
1978-86 Good Relations
1986-1990 Director, The Communication Group
1990-1994 Managing director, Royle Communications
1994 Managing director, Millbank Public Relations